Thursday, November 12, 2009

Painting your way out of a job


During the saga of building our house, at what point did we go from, "Golly, we're so excited about moving in!" to "For Chrissake, let's just move in and get this over with!"? We think it was about three weeks ago.

Two couples who'd built houses here have reassured us our exasperation is natural. At one point, when final work on their houses had ground down to an on-and-on-and-on crawl, they just told the maestro, architect or whoever seemed to be in charge, "We're done, get out of here, we'll finish this place on our own, somehow."

They and other friends figure the phenomenon of the last-minute slowdown is simply the result of the Mexican workers' understandable desire to stretch out every gig for as long as possible.

Construction work often is not paid by the project, as in "I'll give you $10 bucks to paint that wall," but weekly, as in "we'll keep paying you to paint--or diddle with--that wall for as long as it takes." Whole-job estimates in San Miguel are often closer to conjecture or wishful thinking than hard figures.

Under the weekly payment system there's no incentive to work quickly and efficiently, for all that's going to do, particularly now with building construction in a deep slump, is leave you out of a job.

But that can't be the whole explanation. In the case of the carpenter we signed what seemed a truly impressive contract specifying completion and payment landmarks. Even with incentives dangling in front of his nose to complete the work and get his money, the guy immediately started missing his own deadlines and is now several weeks behind schedule.

Painting has become a particular aggravation because in high school I worked a couple of summers as a painter and I know the process of changing the color of a wall is no mystery. In fact, it's pretty damn close to unskilled labor, particularly when you're using water-based latex paint, one of the great idiot-defying inventions of the last one hundred years.

Whether you're drunk, uncoordinated or just plain stupid, water-based latex paint seems to magically even itself out when you put it on a surface. It's a modern miracle.

Yet at our new house painting became an arcane process, closer to alchemy than semi-skilled labor. When I occasionally asked what was going on, the painter shook his head with considerable seriousness, as if my questioning might disrupt an ancient ritual inaccessible to gringos anyway.

Rather than getting a color chart--a Mexican company called Comex produces excellent paint in a palette of literally thousands of colors--and selecting a shade of, say, "Sassy Papaya" or "Seductive Chartreuse," our painter insisted on mixing his own shades. Right on the spot.

The way you do it is to buy two, three, four or five quarts or gallons of paint and keep mixing and stirring a little bit of this, a dab of that and a smidgen of something else, and painting square-foot swatches on the wall until you get the "right" shade. For extra-special effect, sometimes a second coat is applied while the first one is still wet, or dabbed on with a rag rather than brushed on.

On our job paint rollers didn't make an appearance until literally the last day, when two guys hastily began applying a afterthought coat of white paint to the inside walls of the garage. On the rest of the house they instead tediously dabbed on the paint with stumpy eight-inch-wide brushes with one-inch-long bristles. Don't know if those brushes are actually made that way, trimmed with scissors or simply worn down to the perfect stubble length after years of use.

Two problems with these one-of-a-kind color schemes. One, all this fiddling seems unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. We love our house and want it to look nice, but we're not trying to match the precise shade of Marie Antoinette's pantry at Versailles.

Far worse is the second problem: How are you going to match the color a couple of years from now when you need to repaint and the original painter is gone? These guys don't use glass beakers to measure the precise proportions and certainly aren't going to leave you detailed formulas.

It's already happened. A blue-gray wall on the inside of our front patio was splattered with some brown stuff. A quick touch-up would have been no problem except there was no paint left over. Ask the painter? Well, the guy got fired and probably is in no mood to reveal his secret formulas. Ask Comex to match it? Not exactly: Comex doesn't have color-matching scanners, so the only match would be an approximation from one of the printed color swatches.

So you ask yourself: What the heck was wrong with Comex's ready-made "Sleepy Aztec Heaven" or some such shade of blue in the first place? Need a touch up? Just buy another can.

Then comes another local painting tradition: One must water down latex paint, roughly on a ratio of one-to-three, "to ensure proper adhesion" according to our original painter. He's the guy who got fired, though this was no personal brainstorm of his. At least around San Miguel it's part of the drill with local painters.

I should have sensed trouble when the painter, also named Alfredo (maybe that was the start of our problems) explained that it would take four, five--even more!--coats of paint to get proper coverage on our interior walls. Puzzled, I muttered that a good coat of primer and two coats of the final color should do it, no?

"No señor, I can assure you," he explained respectfully, all the while letting on a slightly condescending smile that said instead, "You fuckin' gringo putz!"

Then it became clear. You need five and six coats of paint, because the paint is watered down! I experimented with some leftover paint one weekend and indeed it had the consistency and coverage of whitewash.

What a concept, especially if you want to stretch out a painting job.

Who knows how all these quirks took hold among the local painters. They don't come from the instructions on the label of Comex latex paint. A sly work-stretching trick that became entrenched custom? Perhaps. Watering down the paint to save money, since many paint estimates include materials? Could be.

As a former painter I can vouch that watering down latex paint doesn't save money--you have to apply more coats to achieve the same coverage and the final job peels off and scratches more easily.

Brushes versus rollers? Our painters swear that paint dabbed on with the stubby brushes dries more evenly than that coming from a roller.

That's patent nonsense too. The walls on our study, the guest bathroom and the main bedroom are riddled with brush strokes and white primer filtering through the top coat.

But we're not going to complain about it, much less ask for another coat. That would only call for more paint, water, stumpy brushes and longer hours for the painters. When they finish with the garage, that's it for painting.

Another coat will be applied indeed but by the only guy I can trust right now to do the job right.

Me.